Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Recognizing Eight Belles

Magnificent, beautiful, courageous, and brilliant. These four words sum up the kind of horse we all saw when watching Eight Belles run. She was a big filly, much taller than her female counter parts. Despite being abnormally tall for a filly she was not just all legs, but a monster in size as well. Just by looking at her one could easily make the mistake of thinking she was a colt. Her charcoal grey coloring only made her stand out more, making her look even more intimidating. Despite her size and talent, like most other young horses, it took Eight Belles a while to grow into her body and to figure out how to really run.

Looking at her two year old record, one would not be overly impressed. Eight Belles took three tries to break her maiden, then finished seventh in her first allowance try. She would race once more that season finishing a much improved second. Even though she did not win more than a maiden race as a two year old, she was far from a dissa pointment. With an over all record of 5: 1-2-1, she expressed talent but hadn't quite reached her full potential.

As a three year old Eight Belles finally blossomed into the top notch filly she was meant to be. She started off her season with an immediate romping win, by 15 lengths, in an allowance race at the Fair Grounds. However, instead of staying in town and prepping for the Fair Grounds Oaks, trainer Larry Jones decided to ship his budding super star to Oaklawn Park, where Eight Belles went on to trounce the field in the Martha Washington Stakes by 13 1/2 lengths. In her next start the Honeybee, Eight Belles was to face the unbeaten Pure Clan, but yet again Eight Belles overpowered the field, winning eased by just over 2 1/4 lengths. By now she was well on her way to becoming the best three year old filly in the nation.

Because of winning with such apparent ease in her last three outings, Eight Belles was left to face only three challengers in the Fantasy Stakes, in her attempt to win all three of Oaklawn's three year old filly prep races for the Kentucky Oaks. The Fantasy was suppose to be just another walk in the park for Eight Belles, but it turned out to be her most challenging race yet. After breaking in the air at the start, Eight Belles recovered quickly, but remained forth, trailing her opponents, allowing the speedy Alina to run off with an easy lead. Entering the far turn, after a half mile run in 48 flat, Eight Belles began to lengthen her stride, coming on even turns with the leaders Pure Clan and Alina as they reached six furlong marker. As they straightened away it looked like Eight Belles was on her way to another easy victory. Alina had other ideas after becoming brave after being having been allowed to run the race on her own terms, and she was not about to fold to Eight Belles. For the better part of the stretch Eight Belles remained a battling second, but as the two fillies came down to the wire Eight Belles found another gear, surging to the lead to take the Fantasy by three quarters of length.

It was that race that got the connections of this brilliant filly thinking, not about another romping victory in the Kentucky Oaks, but perhaps becoming the forth filly to win the most prestigious race in America, the Kentucky Derby. Weeks of wonder and anticipation slowly passed before the decision was made. After a drawing the far outside gate in the Kentucky Oaks the previous day and drawing post position number five in the for the Derby draw was decided that Eight Belles was officially out of the Oaks and in for showdown with the boys.

As they broke from the gates to roar of the Churchill Downs crowd Eight Belles was among the first wave of horses as they raced into the clubhouse turn. Entering the first turn, Eight Belles settled into a ground saving fifth, traveling well within herself. For the majority of the race Eight Belles raced in forth, avoiding all the bumping and jostling. As the field turned for home Eight Belles had plenty of run, but no room for her to unleash her devastating kick. Angling out, Eight Belles finally found a clear path, but by then the undefeated Big Brown was already marching away to victory. As they crossed the finish Big Brown was the victor by nearly five lengths, but Eight Belles, once freed from traffic had asserted her own dominance, finishing 3 1/2 ahead of Dennis of Cork.

Had this been the end of a fairy tale Derby story for the magnificent daughter of Unbridled Song then we probably would've seen not just two superstar fillies running in 2009, but three. But what happened after the wire halted any further hopes and dreams for the connections of Eight Belles. Pulling up after the wire those in the grandstand watched in horror as Eight Bells collapsed on the track. Later it was learned that Eight Belles had sustained not one but two compound fractures, one to each of her fetlocks in her front legs. The decision was made almost immediately, her injuries were to great, something no horse could overcome, so it was decided to put her down right there.

Since that day changes have been made. There are now a variety of new synthetic tracks, made to prevent breakdowns, new foam padded crops are are being used, so horses do not feel the sting of the whip. Drug policies have been toughened, so that one day we may once again see the day where the only thing a horse ran on was hay, oats and water. Despite all that is being done we still remember, we remember Eight Belles along with all of other fillies that died, giving their life to do what they loved most, running. Magnificent in size, beautiful in spirit, brilliant in victory, and courageous in defeat. Eight Belles you will never be forgotten.


  1. Eight Belles' death was one of the worst tradgedies I have ever seen at the track. She was such a powerful filly and had just run her greatest race yet...It does not get much sadder.

    Thank you for the nice job in describing her and her career. Who knows how good she may have been. Eight Belles is missed.

  2. I have not seen many, and I did not get to see hers until they replayed the overhead view of the Derby. Her breakdown is among the most tragic, right there with Barbaro, Go For Wand, Pine Island and many more. I too wonder what could have been had she been alive racing today.

  3. Eight Belles is a granddaughter of Unbridled, not daughter.

  4. Rachel,
    My mistake, I meant Unbridled Song. Thank you for catching that.

  5. Very nicely written. It is always warming to see the lingering effects Eight Belles has left on so many and to see the gift she left all her equine friend's at work beginning to regulate the sport...the gift of a groundbreaking legacy that is changing the future of the horse industry --- the focus is now on improving industry standards, issues that need strict guidelines concerning equine health, safety, and the humane kind treatment of these beautiful gentle animals.


  6. Hello Eight Belles,
    First off I would like to formally say hello and welcome to Horsin' Around. Secondly thank you very much on the compliment. Eight Belles was such a talented and beautiful horse, she deserved to be represented well.

    I know it's sad that horses must die in order to shake this industry into action, and I wish that part would change, but the bright side is that thanks to horses like Eight Belles, Pine Island, Fleet Indian, and Barbaro the sport is making an effort.